Thursday, 30 April 2015

Favourite hotels: a little gem in southern France



Number 4 in an occasional series on special hotels


It was the irritating tendency of French hotels to close their restaurants on Sunday evenings that led us to the Hotel Mont Aigoual. We had been walking on the Monts d’Aubrac, an open and sometimes windswept plateau which straddles a pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela in the south of the 28 Massif Central, and we wanted to move on. Besides a restaurant that opened on Sundays the prerequisites were good cooking at a reasonable price and a comfortable room. From its description in the Michelin red guide to France, the three star Mont Aigoual, in the small town of Meyrueis, looked a good bet.





And so it turned out. It’s a member of Logis de France, a long established family business run impeccably by Stella Robert, who polices the restaurant with eagle eyed briskness, and chef Daniel Lagrange. The rooms, which have flat screen TVs and either showers or baths, were more than adequate and modestly priced. Current rates range from €90 to €160 (or roughly £65 to just over £115), Breakfast included fruit juices, yoghurts, charcuterie and pastries. There was an open air pool in the garden at the rear.

It was the food that marked it out, however. The excellent Menu Terroir remains a real bargain at €18 for two courses or €25 for three – maybe with a main of trout from the River Jonte with chorizo or Navarin d’Agneau. Sometimes we were content with that, sometimes we stretch to the Menu Gourmand, starting at €37, which currently includes lamb from the nearby limestone causses and turbot with truffles. For dessert I have returned more than once to the “assortissement” of intensely flavoured sorbets.


Lest you doubt my recommendation, users of booking.com currently rate the note "fabulous"'.


Meyrueis, in the Lozère department, lies at the meeting point of the Jonte, the Bethuson and the Brèze. The tourist office can provide details of excellent walks in the area. Among them are circuits on the Causse Méjean, the limestone plateau which rises steeply just to the north of the town, where there’s a memorial to 34 members of the resistance were killed (and 37 captured and executed) in the battle of La Parade on May 24, 1944.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

More new flights from Scotland promised

Perhaps the SNP's growing clout has something to do with it. Airlines are increasingly showing confidence in the Scottish market by launching new direct routes. Ryanair has announced it will operate new cheap flights from Scotland next winter. The  will launch services from Glasgow to Berlin, operating four round trips a week. It will also start flying to Frankfurt Hahn and Santander in northern Spain year round instead of just in summer.   On June 8 Etihad will start a daily, non stop service between Edinburgh and its home base, Abu Dhabi. And Lufthansa is to launch a new service between Glasgow and Munich (see earlier report).

 

Go in search of chamois in the French Alps


A range of themed hikes is available in the chic French Alpine resort of Megeve. They include an  excursion in search of chamois and whistling marmots. Guides will lead visitors into the mountains to watch them and other wildlife through field glasses. Details – some in French – at www.guides-megeve.com. The price as part of a group of at least five people is €29 a head. 



Megeve is one the Alps’ most attractive wintersports and summer centres. It was the brainchild of Baroness Noémie de Rothschild in the aftermath of the First World War. She wanted to create a French rival to St. Moritz. Later it became a honeypot for glitterati including Sacha Distel, Jeanne Moreau and the writer, artist and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, who all put up at the Hotel Mont Blanc. Cocteau described it as  "the 21st arrondissement of Paris". The hotel's bistro is named after his novel Les Enfants Terribles.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Dusseldorf - offbeat weekend pick - new flights

Old Town: image courtesy Dusseldorf Tourist Office
Dusseldorf might not leap to mind as a city break destination but it has a lot going for it. It has excellent galleries and museums - and boasts the "longest bar in the world" where dozens of pubs with their own micro breweries - and mostly serving succulent Schweinehaxen (pork knuckles), compete for custom. BMI Regional has just launched flights to the German city from Bristol. The airline is operating six round times a week (Sunday - Friday). And Flybe has started flying to Dusseldorf from Cardiff. It's operating only on Saturdays  until the end of August. From August 31 there will be four round trips a week. Among Dusseldorf's attractions are the superb Nordrhein-Westfalen art gallery, with works by artists including Picasso, Matisse and a huge array of paintings and drawings by Paul Klee, a highly regarded film museum, a wonderful glass collection at the Kunstpalast Museum - and there simpler pleasures of strolling by or boating on the Rhine. BMi Regional has also launched services from Bristol to Paris - a much more obvious city break choice - operating  two round trips a day on weekdays on one on Sundays.  


London - Philadelphia flights - competition intensifies


Competition has intensified on the air route between London and Philadelphia. Delta has launched non stop daily non stop flights from Heathrow. And American Airlines has started a second daily service with daytime flights back to Heathrow. 

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Azores cheap flights launched

The Azores offer great walking, superb fresh fish, volcanic hot springs - and the glorious summer spectacle of rural roads hedged with vivid hydrangeas. Low cost flights to the Atlantic islands have taken off from Stansted. Ryanair has launched services to Ponta Delgada, the Atlantic islands’ administrative capital. Sample return fare in mid-May £104.98 - before adding checked bag fees.





Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Budget airline Norwegian will fly to Caribbean

Low cost airline Norwegian is to launch flights from Gatwick to the Caribbean next winter.  It plans to operate two round trips a week Puerto Rico from November 4, with an introductory fare of £269 one way to San Juan. 

"Puerto Rico is more than ready to broaden its horizons in the European market", said Ingrid I Rivera Rocafort, chief executive of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company. The airline already flies from Gatwick to New York, Los Angeles, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. It plans to increase the number of services it operates to New York to one a day - also from next November.


For more news, tips and top travel destination reviews go to silvertraveladvisor.com

Search for wildlife with Inuit guides

On foot and by canoe, travellers are invited to immerse themselves in Inuit culture on a new "safari" to remote far northern Quebec on offer from tour operator Discover the World. Customers will stay in settlements which are accessible only by air or sea and will go out with local Inuit guides in search of the Nunavik regions big three species - polar bears, musk oxen and caribou. 



Image courtesy Discover the World, copyright Heiko Wittenborn







There are eight places on the trip. Departing on July 3 it costs from £6,100 for each of two sharing room with full board and including domestic flights from Montreal - but not international flights.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Glasgow-Munich flights set to start

Lufthansa is set to launch a direct summer service between Glasgow Airport and Munich. The airline will operate one flight a week, on Saturdays, starting on May 16 and ending on October 3.

Snowshoe holidays in the Pyrenees

Spring may not be the obvious time to be contemplating a winter holiday - but this one has only two departures so counter intuitive thinking might not be a bad idea. Ramblers Worldwide Holidays is offering snowshoeing in the Pyrenees. Customers will stay in relatively unsung French resort of Font Romeu at 1850 metres. Local guides will lead them on routes in the Catalan National Park, through forest, along high ridges and across frozen lakes. Prices for one week, including flights, half board and guiding are £1125 (departing January 25) and £1155 (February 22).

Sunday, 19 April 2015

French wetlands new tourist centre set to re-open


The new interpretation centre in the fascinating, ancient French wetlands known as the Audomarois marshes is scheduled to open for summer on May 2 (until September 18). The Maison du Marais, is close to the centre of St Omer, about 45 minutes from the Channel Tunnel or the Calais ferry terminal. It houses permanent and temporary exhibitions focusing on themes such as their history, daily life, culture, flora and fauna and using audio, video and olfactory systems. Outside, around the Moulin d’Aile drainage windmill, is a conservation garden, access to a 4km educational trail – and a jetty where visitors may board boats for trips (possibly not before May25) around the marshes. Kayak rental is also available.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Non stop Costa Rica flights from Gatwick planned

Manuel Antonio National Park (courtesy Costa Rica Tourist Board)




Thomson Airways will fly non-stop from Gatwick to Costa Rica in summer next year. The flights will carry Thomson and First Choice holiday customers. Summer 2016 will also see the return of direct flights to Cuba - also from Gatwick. The tour operators say there has been strong demand of holidays there. They will also launch 24 new routes from regional airports, including a summer link between Bristol and the Cape Verde islands.

Stay in Frank Sinatra's pad

Fancy yourself as Sinatra in the shower? Belting out Witchcraft in his former Palm Springs bolt hole may appeal. You could probably get through that and half a concert with Basie before being being accused of hogging the bathroom. The house has seven of them. UK tour operator Bon Voyage is offering customers the opportunity of staying there. The four bedroom home is full of memorabilia. It incorporates his original recording studio and - though the instrument might seem a little out of keeping - a guitar shaped swimming pool. You'll need a group of similarly minded friends to keep the price down, mind. A week based on eight sharing, starts at £2659 including flights from Heathrow, Manchester or Glasgow and "Champagne limo" transfers on arrival. Next December 12 will be the 100th anniversary of the singer's birth. 

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Walking in Alpbach - chanterelle Heaven

Alpbach can get under your skin. The first time we went i summer it was Pfifferling season. Heaven for fungus lovers. Several restaurants in the Austrian village were offering the little trumpet shaped forest mushrooms, which are better known in Britain by their French name, chanterelles, in a variety of dishes. One had constructed an entire main course menu based on them.
Alpbach (courtesy alpbachtal.com)

I ate them instead of meat, in a ragout. At the Jakobswirt they were served as a piquant goulasch, with a dumpling. And in the most delicious creation of all, the chef at the Gasthof Post combined them with tagliatelle and air dried beef in a cream sauce.

It should have come as little surprise that we did not spot any in the woods. When we asked her where they grew the lady who brought us beer at the end of a hot day's hiking replied: “You have to know the places”. The hint of mystery in her voice evoked visions of furtive fungus gatherers, sneaking out at dawn, glancing over their shoulders lest anyone should be tailing them in the hope of discovering their secret, tree shaded sources.

In an increasingly homogenous Europe it is always encouraging to find something to eat or drink which is not widely available at home. After dinner one night were were offered a complimentary Obstler, or schnapps. Not just any old Schnapps, but one made in nearby Reith, the waitress informed with some pride, by a farmer who grew his own apples and pears. And we were delighted to discover that some local restaurants still offered an even more exotic Tirolean speciality, Graukase. So called because of the grey patches allowed to form in it, this otherwise white, crumbly cheese is traditionally served with oil, vinegar and onions, and is something of an acquired taste.

Some years ago Alpbach was voted the most beautiful village in Austria, an accolade worth its weight in truffles, not least because it stuck in the mind. Whether it really is the prettiest is a matter of opinion, or course, but it is unarguably photogenic. Most of its buildings are in traditional style. In summer their wooden balconies spill a forth of geraniums and petunias. At its heart is a green spired church, with a baroque interior, clearly designed to be large enough for a solidly devout population.

Alpbach evidently has solid devotees abroad. At the top of a meadow above the village is a small plantation of young trees, each planted in honour of a tourist who has visited forty times or more. There are several British names among them. On a quiet road about Inneralpbach, a smaller, satellite village, we stopped by a wooden seat bearing a plaque in memory of another Briton, who loved this valley.

You would be right to infer from this that the village, in summer at least, is not an ideal choice for clubbers. Though there are plenty of families - back carriers can be rented by those who want to take very young children out hiking – visitors are mostly of more mature vintage. The one bar obviously aimed at a younger clientele, its facade lit by garish neon, looks absurdly out of keeping.

On that first holiday we rented a beautifully furnished and equipped first floor apartment on the edge of the village. Each day the baker delivered fresh breakfast and picnic rolls which we had ordered by leaving a ticked form and a bag outside our door the previous evening. As well as the familiar, plain white variety, we could opt for rolls with sunflower, sesame, or poppy seeds, for example.


Hiking above Alpbach




There are few places in which it is better to go walking than the Alps when the weather is fine. Rarely was it cool enough to start climbing directly from the village. Then we laboured up to the Schatzberg, taking around four hours to reach the summit and pausing on a restaurant terrace to eat strawberry cake and slake thirsts with half litres of chilled elderflower (Hollunder in German) cordial. An accordion player and harpist struck up a tune and a couple got up to dance, he in a green, Tyrolean felt hat, performing delicate little steps in hiking boots.
Most mornings, however, the July heat encouraged us to gain altitude before setting off. This was possible by catching a ski gondola to from Inneralpbach or, when that was not operating, from a lift station a little way down the valley. Both lifts deposit you just below the Wiedersberghorn, from which there are a number of walking options. One is to climb to the summit at 2127 metres and descend steeply on the far side to a hut which serves food and drinks. The other is arrive at the same point by skirting the peak on an easy path called the Panoramaweg, contouring along slopes covered in pink Alpenrose.

From the hut a magnificent ridge walk ran to the foot of the Standkofp or, for those making an early start, the Hamberg. On a clear day the views are sumptuous. In one direction across the Inn Valley, southern tip of the Achensee was visible, white sails flecking the blue surface of the lake. In the other, beyond the Ziller valley, was the white expanse of the Hintertux glacier. Our Kompass walking map of the region showed the ridge path as “partly for experienced climbers” - yet another example of how difficult it can be to classify a route. There may be more daunting terrain beyond he Standkopf peak, which was as far as we got, but the section we covered should pose no difficulty for any hiker with a moderately good head for heights.

As holidays are supposed to be a break from routine it is odd how quickly holidaymakers develop routines. Days always ended in the same way: drinking a long anticipated beer under a sunshade; switching to chilled white wine on the apartment balcony and watching evening shadows slant on glossy green meadows across the valley; finding a table on a restaurant terrace for dinner, if not of mushrooms then Wiener Schnitzel perhaps, or venison. Late each afternoon we found a spring from which to top ump our water containers. In Tyrol these springs have been developed into an art form. Most commonly the water bubbles up a felled section of tree trunk and out through a short branch into a trough. By one, a decorated glass mug had been left, secured by a chain. By another was a right angled bench seat where weary groups could sit and refresh.

As must be obvious by now, we have returned several times, in winter as well as summer. Most recently, we have stayed at the Hotel Pirchnerhof in nearby Reith im Alpbachtal. It's a lovely, relaxing place to stay, with a spa incorporating indoor and outdoor pools. Reith, pictured below, also has a gondola lift which runs in summer, saving the legs for high altitude climbs - with better views. Unfortunately, however, the new lift connection with the Wildschonau - a neighbouring valley which is some 45 minutes away by car - is as yet open only in the ski season.


View from our room at the Pirchnerhof


One walking itinerary which we couldn't resist repeating started from the Sonnwendjoch, a short drive away. It began with a peaceful ride on a single seat chairlift, over 40 years old, took us over as ridge to a jewel of a mountain lake in which, if you're used to bathing off British beaches, you may freshen up with a quick swim before picnicking, and continued though a stunning beautiful valley. Finally we completed the circuit with a switchback dash back to the lift, to ride it down tho the car park before it closed for the night.


The village of Reith



How: Munich is the most convenient airport. The drive to Alpbach by rental car takes around 1hr 30mins. Plenty of sites list self catering accommodation but you could start with www.alpbachtal.com. Don't miss out on the chance to see the lovely nearby town of Rattenberg.

One word of advice. In June there was a plague of horse flies on the lower slopes. There seemed to be no way to deter them. Sometimes they drew blood. The only consolation was that their bites did not itch for more than a half hour or so. Unlike those infamous Scottish midges. But best cover up with light clothing as far as possible.

(This article is an updated version of one which first appeared in 2007).